A Candid Interview With UPenn Law Dean Michael Fitts

Do you keep good data on what happens to your alumni and how they are faring in this new world of law?
We do but not as much as we should. We do lots of polling of our alumni to try and figure out what they thought about their legal education and what need to be improved. We’re trying to figure out what they do five and ten years out.
What do the surveys show?
Not to brag, but they generally love their experience here. That goes to the size and the community. I think they have been strongly supportive on a lot of the cross-school programs we have developed. They are also strongly supportive of things like communication and writing skills which we have responded to by expanding that part of our curriculum as well.
What do your surveys show about how many of your alumni no longer practice law?
First of all, I wouldn’t describe those people as no longer being lawyers. They are no longer in the traditional practice of law. But you are always a lawyer when you have graduated from law school. We don’t have hard data about the percentages. There is a large percentage who ultimately move into areas that we think legal education is critical for but you wouldn’t necessarily say they are practicing law. Part of that is they may move in-house and then out of the general counsel’s role into senior management roles.
Students will usually be in law or clerking for two to five years but after that they spread out to a larger group of entities. And as you move further out they may move into other jobs. Lloyd Blankfein (of Goldman Sachs) is a reformed lawyer but I doubt he is practicing law today. In fact, my impression is that a lot of the people who ran Goldman were lawyers. A lot of private equity people are lawyers because of the technical issues of putting a restructuring together. More generally, any area where regulation is a significant part of the environment is where you’ll find a lot of lawyers.
It’s perceived that the legal profession has been more welcoming to women than business. Do you think law is better than business for women?
I can’t make a comparative statement between law and business about either the schools or the professions. Law provides a lot of opportunities in terms of diversity of careers that makes it attractive to a broad range of people. You can take a law degree and move in a whole different variety of directions. You are not pigeon-holed. All of the professions have struggled in improving their diversity and making themselves welcoming across the board. The interesting part about legal careers for women is that a lot of women have started in law firms and moved to in-house counsel and then risen to the top as general counsel of a lot of major organizations. If there are parts of your career where you can’t be on call 24 hours a day, you can go in-house and have more control over your life and then later you can move up and become general counsel. You see a lot of women who are extremely successful in that part of the profession. But you do see fewer women at the partnership level of major law firms.
A lot of bright young people often choose between law, business and medicine. What advice can you offer someone to help them make the right choice?
I get this question from my daughter. She has been struggling with the question of what to do with her life. And she has talked to people in business, people in medicine and people in law. She came back fundamentally with the conclusion that no senior person in any field is happy with what they do. I do think it is important that there is a sense in which everybody in every profession remembers the good old days.
All the professions are going through major changes. So I think there are stresses in whatever you do. My father was head of surgery here at the medical school. So I came up in a medical family. I saw him talk about medicine and its great promise and how medicine isn’t what it used to be. And then my grandfather was dean of Wharton and I heard about Wharton and the business profession. So I have heard about the great promises of all professions and they all are wonderful professions for the right individual. The question is what sort of person are you? What do you enjoy doing? What kind of difference do you want to make?
For me, saving somebody’s life by operating on them was not how I wanted to spend my life. So that wasn’t attractive to me. What attracts me about law is that it is a profession that is intellectually challenging, requires a great deal of intelligence but has the ability to lead to significant leadership opportunity so you can make a difference. If you look across American society people who have been educated in law have made a phenomenal difference in almost every part of our society. They are not doing basic research, but they are leading organizations that do basic research. They are leading health care organizations. They are leading businesses and they are involved in government.
But you are telling me you haven’t been able to convince your daughter, right?
It looks like she is going to go to medical school. Now my other daughter is a journalist and is now in journalism school so she has followed the worst of all careers. She is at Columbia and in a mid-career writing science program. Like law, it’s going through a transition. What i say to her is what i say to our students. When a field is changing and restructuring that can be a perfect time to be going to school and coming out.
We have looked at our graduates over the years and one of our most successful classes at Penn Law was the class that graduated in 1983. If you go back and look at what was happening, you’ll find that the American economy stagnated from about 1972 through 1983. It was a tough period. Those students graduated into one of the worst markets imaginable. But there were two things we know about that class: first, they knew they had to be scrappy. They had to look hard in terms of their careers. And secondly, 1983 was the beginning of major changes in the American economy. For them, it turned out to be a perfect time because it was so challenging. That class includes the head of MTV, the CEO of Bed, Bath & Beyond. I can just go down the list and you find success after success.
Do you have a personal opinion about rankings?
This is going to shock you. There are not enough of them. Information about academic institutions is useful. Because of the American Bar Association, there is more information available about law schools than probably any other field. It’s difficult for both employers and students to evaluate academic institutions. It’s not like you are going to a restaurant where you can eat the food immediately. You are investing in a three-year educational program and then becoming part of a professional community. So what rankings do is give you more information about these entities that are difficult to understand.
That said, people over read an individual ranking. They look at it and think that’s the final answer. When you see a school drop from 15 to 16, people are asking what happened to so-and-so? Nothing whatsoever.
So that is why I like more rankings rather than less rankings. And they also over read distinctions. So somebody is ranked 30th versus 34th and those I think are silly. There are a lot of ways to evaluate schools and a number of rankings looking at different criteria I think are good–as long as everybody takes them with a huge grain of salt.
Unlike business school, where there are five very influential rankings and any number of other lists, law schools really have just one ranking of prominence and significance: U.S. News & World Report. Right?
Right. I wish there were more rather than less than there wouldn’t be this over reading that occurs. There is no perfect system. What’s fascinating is that there really is much more data out there on law schools than any other field. We put an incredible amount of information up on our website. A huge amount of information goes to the American Bar Association.
The other problem with the rankings is the assumption that there is a ranking of law schools from 100 to 200. That is just not true. Schools can emphasize different things and have different strengths. The hope would be with different ranking systems that would also be recognized.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.